Phoenix aims for slower, more pedestrian-friendly downtown streets

By Robbie Webber

A new study of transportation options in downtown Phoenix aims to improve walking, biking, and transit, as well as prioritize amenities for pedestrians, in order to revitalize the area and encourage people to spend time downtown instead of just getting in and out quickly. Although the process is just beginning, ideas are already being floated to reduce the number of lanes on major streets, slow traffic, change some one-way streets to two-way, and prioritize sustainable transportation modes. Other ideas are: establishing a street car system, reducing parking lots and garages, adding bike lanes, expanding the bike share program, and introducing more parallel parking.

The Phoenix Comprehensive Downtown Transportation Study is part of the larger Building a Quality Arizona effort, a series of statewide transportation framework studies being sponsored by Councils of Governments and Metropolitan Planning Organizations working with the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Arizona State Legislature, the Governor’s Office, and the business community to talk about state infrastructure needs.

The downtown Phoenix study focuses on the city’s boundaries for downtown—McDowell Road to the north, Buckeye Road to the south, Seventh Avenue to the west, and Seventh Street to the east. Downtown advocates would like the area to be friendlier to pedestrians and residents, downtown workers, or visitors who want to linger in the area.

“The city’s traditional downtown transportation policy was to get people into and out of downtown for work or a sports event as quickly as possible, said Tim Eigo, steering committee chairman for Downtown Voices Coalition, a downtown advocacy group. “With improved transportation options, the steering committee hopes residents, workers and visitors to downtown Phoenix will become less dependent on the car,” Eigo says. “If this does not occur, downtown will become more polluted and gridlocked as Phoenix attempts to accommodate a rapidly growing population.”

A series of open houses were held in the fall and ideas presented in February. The Phoenix City Council received an update in February as well, and the results of the study are expected in April.

Advocates of change in downtown transportation infrastructure and priorities recognize that not everyone will be happy with the proposed changes. But so far, organized opposition has not developed. Those in favor of more compact, mixed-use development in the area can also point to a 2012 study funded by ADOT showing that increased density does not lead to heightened traffic congestion. The study compared four Phoenix-area corridors with varying densities and street patterns.

One important variable, the report says, is a street grid with short blocks that allow for short local travel distances. A local street grid can also relieve the traffic-carrying burden of arterials. Most of the target area of the downtown study features a local grid, which also facilitates bicycle and pedestrian movement and makes short trips more feasible without a car. This in turn serves to reduce demand on existing infrastructure.

A recording of an SSTI webinar on the study, featuring the lead researcher and ADOT Director John Halikowski, can be viewed on our website.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.